What We Will Miss Most About Roger Federer

Queen Elizabeth II was buried on Monday, and London is now the scene of another poignant farewell: Roger Federer will retire after the Laver Cup, a team competition being held there this weekend.

Federer, 41, had presumably hoped to put in one more appearance at Wimbledon, which he won a record eight times. But after multiple knee operations, his body is no longer up to the rigors of a Grand Slam tournament, so the Swiss-born Federer will instead end his career on the other side of London, at the 02 Arena, which is hosting the Laver Cup. Federer will play his final match on Friday, pairing up with his longtime rival and friend Rafael Nadal in doubles.

In the days since Federer announced he would retire, tributes to him have poured out. Mostly, these have taken the form of paeans to the beauty of his game and to his graciousness on and off the court.

But there is another aspect of his legacy that deserves mention: the emotional bond that millions of people, even many who were otherwise indifferent to tennis, have had with Federer. It is a connection rooted in something more than mere hero-worshiping. Federer’s career spanned over two tumultuous decades, and during that time he was not just a consistent presence but also a comforting one, an athlete whose ethereal play and unwavering decency buoyed the spirit. Federer provided joy but also succor.

It is worth recalling that Federer’s breakthrough victory was at Wimbledon in July 2001, when he defeated Pete Sampras in an epic fourth-round match. Two months later came the Sept. 11 attacks, and the world has been lurching from one crisis to another ever since. Federer’s career has played out against a backdrop of war, terrorism, disease, economic upheaval, environmental calamity, rising intolerance and assorted other ills. He would have been a revered champion in any era, but the fact that he competed in this one made him an even more cherished figure.

If you go strictly by the numbers, Federer will likely be remembered as the third-best player of this era. With 20 major championships, he has been surpassed for Grand Slam singles titles by Nadal (with 22) and Novak Djokovic (21), and he has losing records against both. When it comes to the GOAT question, even the most ardent Federer loyalists concede that it is tough to make a persuasive case on his behalf.

But the trophy count can’t capture how Federer made us feel, and on that score, he is peerless. Yes, Nadal is an adored figure in his own right, but the attachment to Federer has been deeper and different: Odd as it may sound, people seem to draw sustenance from Federer. Books have been written attesting to his life-affirming influence (“Federer and Me,” “Footsteps of Federer”).

A few years ago, following an inconclusive Brexit debate in Parliament, John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons (and a well-known Federer devotee), bemoaned the lack of progress, threw up his hands, and said: “In what do I take comfort? Well, Roger Federer put on a majestic master class in Miami last night.” Taking comfort in Federer: I think a lot of us experienced that sensation.

We naturally savored the artistry that he brought to the court. Tennis is a stylish game, but no one rendered it more elegant than Federer, with his balletic footwork and his “great liquid whip” of a forehand, as the novelist David Foster Wallace described his signature shot.

However, it wasn’t only or even principally his skill with a racket that made Federer so beloved. He exuded kindness, an all-too-rare quality in an athlete of his stature and an attribute that stood out at a time when cruelty seemed ascendant. When Federer came back from injury to win the Australian Open in 2017, the euphoria that greeted his victory surely owed something to Donald Trump’s having just taken office. Federer’s improbable triumph felt like a gift to the anguished.

Credit…Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Wallace’s “liquid whip” line was from a 2006 essay about the majesty of Federer’s game. It was titled “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” which seemed apt: There was more than a touch of the divine to Federer’s tennis, and it justifiably inspired devotion.

But even then, it was clear that Federer offered more than just aesthetic pleasure. For many people, he was a kind of balm — Roger Federer as a consoling experience, you might say. When there was so much reason to despair, we could at least find solace in Federer. Now we can’t.

Michael Steinberger (@WineDiarist) is a contributing writer at The Times Magazine.

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